Half Man, Half Alley Cat

Half Man, Half Alley Cat June 14, 2012

Upon hearing Sun Kil Moon’s newest record, Among the Leaves, I pictured Mark Kozelek as a musical Moses—hoisting his guitar aloft like a staff and parting his loyal listeners down the middle like the Red Sea.

Advance press for Among the Leaves described the album as playful, which frankly frightened his fan base a little (me included). While I can think of a few playful songs in Kozelek’s catalog, the other 303 songs in my Koz playlist on my iPod—including assorted solo recordings and the complete works of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon—are decidedly somber. His melodies and maladies are often indistinguishable from one another.

“Playful” songs from Kozelek’s past include “Three-Legged Cat,” the penultimate track on the Red House Painter’s Shock Me EP, and “Wop-a-Din-Din,” which opens the band’s final album, Old Ramon. I recall these songs because they are both about cats, and my wife and I own a frightening five felines.

We each had cats before we married, and we could not part with them when we joined our lives together. Our two calicoes, Charlotte and Sophie, were my confidants in my seemingly endless single days. They witnessed me at my best and worst, and I rested easier knowing they knew and loved me.

I cannot help but wonder if Kozelek feels the same way about the strays that show up on his stoop in the song “Track Number 8” (which happens to be track number eleven on Among the Leaves). He feeds them and names them “Monster Fluff, Half Fluff, No Fluff, and Samhain.”

The cats are supporting characters on Among the Leaves. The album is ultimately Kozelek’s show, and he commemorates, complains, confesses, and cracks wise throughout. With regard to song selection, he follows the Beatles’ lead on The White Album, offering the listener the runts of the litter along with their stronger siblings. While reviews have been mixed, I would argue that the sprawling seventeen-song, seventy-three-minute album ranks among the singer-songwriter’s best.

For anyone who has not been baptized into the tar waters of Kozelek’s musical church, his story begins with the Red House Painters, who released a series of acclaimed albums on 4AD records in the ‘90s. The band played a narcotized brand of slow-core à la Low, but decidedly sadder. In 2003, Kozelek shed his Red House Painters skin and released his first album as Sun Kil Moon. The name change was a mysterious move, as his new band sounded like the Red House Painters, and featured members of his former band.


Among the Leaves, compared with Kozelek’s previous releases, is a snapshot of the singer-songwriter with bed-head, dressed in a bathrobe like Harry Nilsson on the cover Nilsson Schmilsson. He exchanges the poetry of the past for more colloquial language, and the vocals are grittier and worn, sounding as though recorded in one or two takes.

Most of all, the album paints a picture of an artist who no longer cares if anyone is looking. Kozelek is long into his love relationship with his audience, and it is as if he now feels comfortable leaving the bathroom door open and talking to us while heeding nature’s call. Fans who never wanted to know the man behind the myth may retreat for this reason. I, on the other hand, welcome a more complete portrait of one of my favorite singer-songwriters.

Throughout the album, Kozelek offers himself as a living visible man—the kind that might be found in classrooms dedicated to songwriting instead of science. His see-through skin allows us to see all of his innards, including his funny bone and his heart, which pumps blood that is still darker than everyone else’s.

We also see the strain of years on his joints and bones. In rock ‘n’ roll years, which are a bit like dog years, Kozelek is almost as old as Moses. It is easy to forget he began painting houses red in 1989. In this sense, Among the Leaves is a playful and poignant portrait of youth past its expiration date.

On Among the Leaves, Kozelek is a card and a bit of a cad: In one particularly revealing song, “That Bird Has a Broken Wing,” Kozelek admits to cheating on the woman he loves with “a girl who didn’t mean anything.” Instead of apologizing, he attributes his actions to his nature. “You know I love you more than that,” he sings, “but I’m half man, other half alley cat.”

For me, the line recalls the Apostle Paul’s admission about his own nature in Romans 7:18: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Like Paul, Kozelek confesses—he cannot allow his beloved or his listener to believe he is anything other than what he really is.


Among the Leaves is not a religious record. It is, however, a picture of a man who wants to be known more fully, and not by any individual, but by the very sea of listeners he risks parting down the middle with this album. Might a longing to be known by the masses be comparable to a longing to be known by One who looms larger than any record-buying public?

At the end of the day, in our working and playing, in our following and straying, we all sleep a little easier knowing we are known—whether by man, beast, or God. We hope that he who is making a home for us happens to be in the business of taking in and taming alley cats. We hope that God, like Mark Kozelek, will feed us when we are the strays who show up on his stoop.

Chad Thomas Johnston is a writer, blogger, artist, singer-songwriter, and publicist who resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines. He is represented by Seattle-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind,” to publishing houses. Visit himwww.chadthomasjohnston.com and his Twitter @Saint_Upid.

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  • Holly Johnston

    I loved it son. I don’t know this guy at all but it makes me want to check out his music. Great job!

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    First off … just how in the heck did this guy slip under my radar ? I’ve got the music from his Myspace page playing as I bang this out ….. dang ! Good picker . Interesting lyrics . A voice vaguely reminiscent of Jose Gonzales . Good stuff . Which CD should I grab if I were to only own one . Knowing I prefer Solo over Band

    Second ; The thought on why one may be needing wider acceptance than can be offered by one person at a time . Desire for The One to know us ? No , thats a given even in the mind of most non believers . And is being known by the public that follows you even valid ? No … Fact is no one in any audience ‘ Knows ‘ nor do they ‘ understand the message you’re trying to convey .They see everything thru their filters and only know what they think they know or read ….. not the real you . When Peter Townsend asks the Question ; ” Can you see the real me … can you …. can you ” the answer is a resounding NO ! Now at that certain age I’ve come to the sad and difficult conclusion that the audience chasing you down in reality has no clue who or what you are : nor could they care less if you were not to have at least a modicum of fame to justify their efforts . You are … as artist/author/musician etc a commodity .. only known to the general public by the amount of fame you generate . A hard truth to face as you pursue that Demon named ‘ Fame ‘ But a truth never the less . As well …. as History has shown ….. a Truth that can and will Kill you given half a grasp on your psyche .

    No ….. as time , experience ( including a certain element of fame under a DBA long since deceased ) have taught me all too well . Fame is a Mistress who demands your all . And she gets it , whether you want her to or not . At that very moment when you realize that She’s a seductive Mistress deceiving you into believing that Fame is real …. coming to the conclusions I’ve stated above …… either you collapse under the weight and pain of Reality crashing down upon you ( that you’re only important as an Artist .. no one really understands either you or your work … and neither do they care …. one bit ) as you stare over the precipice …. that you either chose reality / life and real relationships …….. or ……. That Demon Mistress who’s name is Fame , that demands your all …….. Consumes you in your entirety … leaving you either a hollow shell / sad pastiche of yourself ….. or bringing you to your demise

    To sum up the somewhat convoluted thoughts above . Fame is about as real : when it comes to relationships … as the Internet is . The more ‘ Connected ‘ you think you are …. the more Disconnected in fact you become .

    Here’s what I’ve told students in the past as they begin to approach that Steely Eyed Demon Mistress .. Fame . “Fame will almost always either Consume you – Own you – Crush you – or … End you … and ” Nobody gets Out of Here Alive “.. or at least undamaged . So please …. take Proverbs 12.9 to heart . “

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Here is one of the most profound statements on ‘ Fame ‘ I’ve ever found : be it in lyrics , books , articles etc .

    From the Canadian Bard/Sage : Bruce Cockburn ;

    ” I’ve proven who I am so many times
    The magnetic stripes worn thin
    And each time I was someone else
    And everyone was taken in
    Powers chatter in high places
    Stir up eddies in the dust of rage
    Set me …. to pacing the cage ” // – from ; ” Pacing the Cage ” ; Bruce Cockburn 1995 ( from the album ” The Charity of Night ” )

  • TML,

    Knowing your picking mastery, I would recommend you look into “Admiral Fell Promises,” released under the Sun Kil Moon moniker. It’s very much a Segovia-inspired record, and the musicianship and lyrics are tops. 🙂

    Love Proverbs 12:9. That’s great stuff! 🙂 The Cockburn quote is stellar as well. Thanks for those thoughts, good sir.

    – CTJ

  • TML,

    Also, Kozelek is good friends with José Gonzalez, but definitely pre-dates him. Koz was an influence on him from what I understand. I love José’s “Veneer” album, but have not gotten to check out more than that at this point. Just wanted to add that.

    – CTJ

    • T.Martin Lesh.

      Chad – Any way you look at it ; Chicken … Egg .. what ever they’re both mighty fine musicians . I’ll track down “Admiral Fell Promises ”

      One more reference for you on the issue of ‘ Fame ‘ and how the public perceives the Truth vs What Is the Truth .

      The TV series ” Firefly ” – the ” Janesville ” episode . One of the better dramatizations on the subject IMHO .

  • It seems a marked normality of the sadcore genre to wear one’s heart on their sleeve for all to see and admire or mock. It’s one of the things I love about the genre. Even when Kozelek went into more of an indie folk sound he kept that mentality. I’ve not found one song by him that I didn’t like. This new album is awesome.

    • T.Martin Lesh.

      I’ll be honest here JH . the overwhelming majority of the so called ‘ Sadcore ‘ set bore me to tears / annoy the bejeebers out of me . No One has that bad a life on that consistent a basis to justify one whining song after another about this that or another ‘problem /difficulty ‘ they perceive having . As well as none of Us need to know/be listening to every minute detail of their so called personal problems . Especially when its couched in substandard music , with the excuse being ” its about the lyrics ” . This ‘ Sadcore ‘ bunch could use a lesson or 300 from the likes of Joni Mitchell / Nick Drake / David Wilcox / Bruce Cockburn etc when it comes to making your ‘ story ‘ universally understood … as well as placing some genuine effort into the music , their playing abilities , recording and production . Junk is junk , no matter how ‘ personal ‘ or ‘ revealing ‘ they may claim it to be . To conclude this rant before it becomes too extreme ” Quit your bloody goram whining and Get On with your life ” Life just isn’t that bad for most anyone in the civilized western World and if it is they need to stop whining/singing about it and start DOING something about it . Not ‘ dumping ‘ it on everyone else’s doorstep/iPod/stereo

      Having said that Mr Kozelek is one of the few exceptions of the genre from what I’ve heard so far .

      • TML,

        Justin was just stating his opinion – I’m not sure a rant was needed as a reply. 🙂 Take a deep breath, and do some of that finger picking you’re so well known for! (When do I get to hear it, by the way?)

        Here’s the thing: No one forces people to listen to music that annoys them. Sadcore artists are not dumping their music on the doorsteps of others. More and more, because artists can disseminate their music with ease via the Web, home recording studios, and MP3s, people have to search music like this out. Kozelek has been around for over 20 years, making music for 4AD, Island, and such, but he remains a relatively obscure artist. So is he dumping his emotional loads on peoples’ doorsteps? Hardly. 🙂

        People choose what they listen to. On my darker days, I’ve found sadcore stuff like the Red House Painters and Low very cathartic and healing. To me, that’s a benefit of the genre. It offers an emotional legitimacy that taps into something along the lines of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. There is pain and suffering in the world, and sometimes it weighs us down. We feel the weight of things, and sometimes the only way to get it out is through music. That’s a gift music offers us. Jesus saves our souls, but He also offers us salvation here and now from the malaise of everyday life.

        I think there is room for sadcore. You don’t have to love it, but I think dismissing it out of hand is a bit unfair. I still like you though. 🙂 It’s okay for Justin and I to like sadcore. Do I listen to it constantly? Nope. But does it have its place? Yes. I would argue it does. Do some of the sadcore artists need therapy? Sure. But that’s between them, their therapists, and God. All I know – as you have pointed out before – is the music. Do we REALLY know these artists by their music alone? Nope. But as media users, we can engage them in a way that suits us, and where that means tuning them out in your case, it can mean healing or catharsis in mine.

        My two (or three) cents. 🙂

        – CTJ

        • T.Martin Lesh.

          CTJ – Well maybe I’m mistaken here in my assumption as to what the comments side of things is really all about . I’ve assumed ‘ Comments ‘ to be a place of public debate – expressing ones opinions with the knowledge that someone else may come along and dispute them – replying ( hopefully ) with a valid defense while maintaining a reasonable sense of civility . Trading and exchanging views and hopefully learning something /growing in the process . e.g. Argument in the Classical definition . But …. if I’m to understand your reply accurately …. it seems I may be wrong in my assumptions . If that be the case then ….. Mea Culpa .

          • I understand. I just wanted to offer something in the way of a defense against your diatribe against sadcore. No problem, good sir. You’re right – comments forums are for discussions like this. I just thought, “What did Justin say that prompted TML to rant?” Ha! 🙂

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Just to be clear it was nothing Justin said that prompted my response . Its the essence of the ‘ Sadcore ‘ movement as well as the consequences that have ensued that never get discussed that got me on my ‘ Soapbox ‘ So nothing personal intended Justin if you’re looking in

  • Really nice article.
    I’m not sure the Apostle Paul is the first association I’d make in listening to Sun Kill Moon, but I like the idea.
    Keep up the good work.